Origins

Posted by Markus Oppolzer on February 26, 2012 in Guest Blog, Markus Oppolzer, Uncategorized tagged with

I recently finished an essay on comics adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) which are widely used in British schools. In fact, there is a whole adaptation industry out there catering to the needs of teachers in secondary education. This can be easily explained if one consults the English National Curriculum which strongly recommends these adaptations to introduce the canon of English literature, but also different interpretations of and approaches to the great works of the past. More importantly, they are used to acquaint low-ability students to novels which they would not be able to read without this translation into heavily illustrated graded readers (I want to avoid the term ‘comics’ here because in many cases they aren’t really more than that.)
Clearly, Frankenstein has become a foundational text. This is not only true of secondary education, where it serves to introduce the (arche)types of the outsider and the mad scientist, but also of Science Fiction Studies – for obvious reasons. However, if one looks at Frankenstein‘s intertextual web, in the sense of Julie Sanders, then the sources are equally important. To my great surprise two of the most important aspects are rarely discussed.
The first concerns the moral implications of Frankenstein’s creation. When John Locke addresses the question of parents’ rights over their children in the First Treatise of Government (1690), he also speculates about the general status of an artificially constructed humanoid and the creator’s moral right to destroy such a being: “To give Life to that which has yet no being, is to frame and make a living Creature, fashion the parts, and mould and suit them to their uses, and having proportion’d and fitted them together, to put into them a living Soul. He that could do this, might indeed have some pretence to destroy his own Workmanship. But is there any one so bold, that dares thus to Arrogate to himself the Incomprehensible Works of the Almighty? Who alone did at first, and continues still to make a living Soul, He alone can breathe in the Breath of Life.” John Locke, “First Treatise”, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (1690; Cambridge et al.: CUP, 2005), pp. 141-263, p. 179. Would Locke specifically address such an issue without a public debate on the artificial creation of human beings? Who was involved in the debate? Frankenstein reads like an answer to Locke’s speculation but what happened in the 130 years in between?
The second aspect concerns Mary Shelley’s indebtedness to her father’s novel Caleb Williams (1794), not so much in terms of his social philosophy, but his intriguing use of unreliable narration. I highly recommend reading Frankenstein again and keeping an eye out for signs of unreliability. This is quite an experience as the novel gains a completely new dimension and reads very differently.
I would be greatly interested in feedback on these two points. Are there any scholarly studies out there on either the moral debate concerning the artificial creation of human beings in the eighteenth century or Frankenstein as an early example of unreliable narration? I assume that there must be and that I simply have not come across them.

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